Advanced Search
Midge Decter
Midge Decter
An Old Wife’s Tale:  My Seven Decades in Love and War
ISBN: 0060394285
An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War
"What has happened to me over the course of the past seven decades has in one way or another happened to many if not all present-day American women—from the almost dizzyingly rapid ringing of changes to the discover of that in our lives which is never changing."

This beautifully written book offers a memorable chronicle of American life since the 1940s that is hard to match in sweep, unconventional thought, and hard-won wisdom on subjects ranging from the relations between the sexes to the relations between America and the world.

One of the nation's most renowned female conservatives, Midge Decter is known for her frequently controversial stands on modern social issues. An Old Wife's Tale is her thoughtful examination of the lives of American women and men over the last sixty years, as viewed through the lens of her own life. From stories of her youth during World War II—when Decter and her friends learned that "only the class beauty and the class tramp had no difficulty with the dating system"—to a surprising and often hilarious picture of what the 1950s were really like to an account of her later roles as a single mother, publishing executive, happily married woman, political iconoclast, and doting grandmother, Decter paints a singular portrait of a life lived on the front lines of American culture.

By turns serious, wry, and deeply personal, An Old Wife's Tale brings us an important new perspective on twentieth-century American life.
—from jacket of the book

An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War
Program Air Date: October 7, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Midge Decter, in this book about your life, a memoir, "An Old Wife's Tale," had you written this after the World Trade Center tragedy, would you have changed anything?
Ms. MIDGE DECTER, AUTHOR, "AN OLD WIFE'S TALE: MY SEVEN DECADES IN LOVE AND WAR:" Well, I would certainly have included it, because it is certainly bringing about a change in the spirit of--at least of New York City and, I think, of the whole country.
LAMB: You--and you talk about your life in here, all the different instances or things that happened in your life. Wh--where would you place that as--in the importance of what's happened in this country?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I would place it with World War II, when suddenly the whole nation was inspirited. Everybody was worried and everybody had someone to worry about, because it was an enormous army and every family had someone in it. But there was a feeling, a very American feeling, of `By God, we're on our way and we'll take care of things.' It was very, ver--I was a kid, but it was very, very inspiriting.

And this, curiously, in New York, at least, has had the same effect, though we haven't done anything yet, but everybody was--everybody cared about everybody else. And it's interesting, because in a curious way, New York was very cheerful in that way of feeling that everybody was together in this. But I've spoken to friends in Washington and they all sounded plain depressed. It's a very different feeling in these two cities, or at least so it seemed to me.
LAMB: Y--you're obviously a--have--have strong views about politics in--in your life. What happened to those strong views among people in New York City, where you lived during this time?
Ms. DECTER: Well, they were all gung-ho about getting those terrorists and about `This is the United States and, by God, we're good and they're bad.' It was that kind of feeling. That's why I likened it to World War II, because that was the feeling everybody had. It was very simple. You knew who the bad guys were and you knew who the good guys were, and that--that simplicity of feeling never came again, not in any of the subsequent wars or anything.
LAMB: Why do you think that is the case?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I think a big, rich, powerful country that was getting richer and more powerful, people find it easy to take everything for granted and to feel that they have lots of leeway to do whatever they please and to think whatever they want. And--and, I mean, you know what we lived through with Vietnam. And I myself was an opponent of the war in Vietnam, but I was really horrified by the way my fellow opponents were conducting themselves. And, you know, they're back again. The same people on the college campuses are now yammering about peace and about this imperialist society and so on.
LAMB: What is it that leads some people to feel that way, in your opinion?
Ms. DECTER: A lack of seriousness. I used to call them the spoiled children of liberty, and--and they're back. There are not so many of them, I think. I haven't taken a census, but they're all on the campuses--Yale, City College--just the ones I really know something about recently. They're all there, demonstrating and yammering, the professors and the--their innocent and ill-informed students.
LAMB: If I remember correctly, don't you live on the Upper West Side of New York?
Ms. DECTER: Not anymore. We used to live on the--we lived there for years and years. We raised our children there. But then when they all flew the coop, we moved to a smaller place on the East Side.
LAMB: That's a highly--or well-known liberal area of the world, Upper West Side.
Ms. DECTER: The Upper West Side, so is the Upper East Side...
LAMB: So what--whatever will...
Ms. DECTER: ...I can tell you.
LAMB: And--and--and you don't call yourself a liberal in the new sense?
Ms. DECTER: No, I don't call myself a liberal anymore. There's no point in it. For a long time we used to say, `We're the real liberals. You're not the real liberals,' but that was nonsense.
LAMB: The reason I bring that up is, what do you find the liberals of New York saying about this particular incident?
Ms. DECTER: Well, most of them--as I say, except for the really stupid kids and their even more stupid professors, most of them are shocked and coming around. The symptom of this is that there's a great move on to keep Rudy Giuliani mayor for another term, which is against the law. But everybody who voted for term limits is now very, very, very regretful and--and--because in a crisis it's Rudy we want.
LAMB: Why--and--and you s--you point out in your book that you were a hard-bitten anti-Communist.
Ms. DECTER: Yes, always.
LAMB: What would that mean, and why didn't a lot of your liberal friends feel the same way?
Ms. DECTER: Well, some of them were ignorant and some of them had a luxury that I didn't feel I had, partly be--I think, because I'm a Jew, and--and also I went through--I--as I describe in here, at certain point in my life when I had very, very small children, I went through an orgy of--excuse me--reading concentration camp literature. And there were--there were the Nazi camps about which we knew, but the Soviet camps were just as bad, and there were more of them and there were more prisoners and they were--they were at it longer. Excuse me. They were at this game longer, the Communists, and so they had a lot more slaughter to their credit. And to know about what was going on in the Soviet Union was to hate it.
LAMB: You--by being here on BOOKNOTES, it's the first time in the 13-year history of this program we've ever had father, mother and son. And so that people can see what I'm talking about, I want to run a video clip of one person in your life that I want you to talk about.

(Excerpt from March 28, 1999, BOOKNOTES)

Mr. NORMAN PODHORETZ (Author, "Ex-Friends"): Kerouac's girlfriend called me up and said, `Come down and have tea with us,' which was a euphemism in Greenwich Village. And I got all dressed up in a suit and tie because I didn't want to seem to be going down to enemy territory in their uniform, as you might say, down in Greenwich Village. And I got there and we spent--the first day they wanted me to smoke marijuana with them--that's what they meant by tea--and--and I--I had no moral compunctions, but I--I refused, and I was not gonna play the game by their rules.

And we had this long and very intense argument, both about literature, you know, they accusing me of being philistine about their--their work and also about the--the--the--the doctrines that they were preaching through their literary works. And we got nowhere. I didn't convince them, they didn't convince me. And at a certain point in the evening I left with Kerouac to go see somebody else. And as I left, Ginsberg yelled at me, `We'll get you through your children.' I already had children, by the way. And he was an early out-of-the-closet homosexual and a--and a--and a preacher of the superiority of homosexuality to heterosexuality, so there was a double meaning in that.

(End of excerpt)

LAMB: There's a dedication in your book `To the one but for whom'--should we assume that...
Ms. DECTER: I think you have to assume that, yes.
LAMB: Where--where did you meet Mr. Podhoretz?
Ms. DECTER: Oh, when we met, he was a kid, he was about 16 and I was his older friend. He used to cry on my shoulder. And then life took us apart. I got married and I had two children, and he went off to Cambridge and then he was in the Army. And then I got divorced and then we ended up working together in the same office, and...
LAMB: Where?
Ms. DECTER: At Commentary magazine. And that was that.
LAMB: What year did you marry?
Ms. DECTER: We married in 1956.
LAMB: When he was here, he said to me, `Please stop me because I tend to ramble.' The only reason I mentioned that, he--you know, he--he has long answers to questions. You don't seem to be that way. You seem to have short answers to questions.
Ms. DECTER: Yes. Well, he--he's a wonderful talker and he's a much more wonderful talker than I am, and I have spent more than 40 years listening to him with great pleasure.
LAMB: How often do you disagree, and on what kind of thing?
Ms. DECTER: Well, we disagreed for a while now and then about disciplining the children. That's a kind of classic disagreement between a mother and a father, but it was more serious then because it was a bad time. But kids--it was getting to be a very bad time for kids, and he was right and I was wrong, and when I realized this, that was it. But otherwise, we haven't really had any serious disagreements.
LAMB: Not on politics.
Ms. DECTER: Not on politics.
LAMB: What were your disagreements about raising kids?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I was far more liberal, I was a classic 1950s mama, and that my children be happy and give evidence of being happy was the most important thing to me, which I think was true of all of us of my generation, and our children did not benefit from this one bit.
LAMB: Why?
Ms. DECTER: Well, because we were supposed to represent the world to them and it was our job to teach them how to live in the world, not to change the world to conform to their very young and inexperienced and ignorant ideas. And he was terrific, because he didn't care what opinion--what the common opinion was. He knew what he thought, and of course he was right.
LAMB: And you had two children by your first marriage and two by your second?
Ms. DECTER: Yes, right.
LAMB: Let--let's--let's look at one of those children, because he's the other person that's appeared on here.
Ms. DECTER: My baby. (Excerpt from December 19, 1993, BOOKNOTES)
LAMB: Your dedication is `For my mother, I manned the lifeboat. For my father, to whom this not in any way a letter. And for Tod Lindberg, a paragon of friendship, wisdom and good cheer.' What's a--that all about?

Mr. JOHN PODHORETZ (Author, "Hell of a Ride"): OK. Well, my mother and father are both--are both writers, and my mother wrote a book in 1976.
LAMB: Your mom's name? Mr. J. PODHORETZ: Midge Decter--called "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," the dedication to which was `To my children: Man the lifeboats.' So, my father, who was a writer named Norman Podhoretz, who has published many books and is the editor of Commentary magazine, wrote a book in 1967 called "Making It," which is dedicated to me and my sisters. The dedication says `To whom this is in many ways a letter.' So my dedi--my--my dedication says `This book is in no way a letter--a letter to you.'

(End of excerpt)

LEONARD: Where does the writing come from?
Ms. DECTER: I don't know. Where does writing come from? It comes from very, very far back. Most writers are--start scribbling when they're little kids, especially that one. God, he scribbled from the time--practically from the time he could form letters. And you usually start out wanting to be a poet because that's the easiest. You can write poems without knowing anything. And Norman wrote poems longer than I did. I got over that very quickly. And I don't know where it comes from.
LAMB: Three daughters. Do they write?
Ms. DECTER: Yes, they do. LEONARD: What kind of things do they write?
Ms. DECTER: Well, one has been the editor of the Weekend magazine of the Jerusalem Post--she lives in Jerusalem--and one used to write editorials for the Washington Times, and she now does public relations.
LAMB: And the third?
Ms. DECTER: The third writes seldom, though she writes very, very well, and she has become an artist, actually. She makes these wonderful ceramic tiles with pictures on them. They're wonderful.
LAMB: What has the--the written word done for you in your life and your husband and your son? And if you hadn't had it, how would your life have been different?
Ms. DECTER: It's hard to imagine what it would have been. I mean, this was what we did. It was also the way we made our livelihood, being a writer, being an editor. I didn't make much of a livelihood being a writer. I was a freelancer, and writing for highbrow magazines doesn't actually bring you much in the way of income. But we were all in that game and John, too, is an editor.
LAMB: What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Ms. DECTER: The first thing I ever wrote. Hmm. The first thing I ever wrote seriously for--and wa--that was published was for Commentary, and it was a review of a play on--not on Broadway, off Broadway.
LAMB: How did you get to Commentary in the first place? Start at the beginning. Where were you born?
Ms. DECTER: I was born in Minnesota.
LAMB: What town?
Ms. DECTER: In St. Paul, Minnesota. I was the youngest of three girls and I was--I remember wanting--dreaming of coming to New York from ab--the time I was about six or seven years old. The first time I was brought to New York and I saw all these--all these people and the smells and the sights and the sounds, and I--I never got over it, and I haven't gotten over it to this day. I'm still capable of, at dusk particularly, riding through Central Park in a taxi and saying to myself, `Look where you are.'
LAMB: What was so different about New York from St. Paul?
Ms. DECTER: Well, St. Paul was a very close-knit community. We were Jews and the Jews tended to live in a close-knit community, and everybody behaved in a certain way and everybody thought a certain way and--I don't know. I just--I was just--I just longed for the big city. And I had no skills. I knew how to do--I couldn't do anything. And when I had to go to work, the only thing I knew how to do was type, and not very well, and through a series of circumstances, I got a job on Commentary as a secretary to the managing editor.

And then I left to have two children, and then when I divorced, I went back there, this time to work as the secretary to the editor in chief. And it's very--there's a funny story, because the managing editor for whom I worked was a friend of Norman Podhoretz. They had had a friendship, and Norman was in Germany in the Army, and they were corresponding. And one day this man, Robert Warshow, wrote a letter to Norman and said, `There's someone here who says she knows you. Her name is Midge Decter, and if her typing ever improves she may be here when you get back.' My typing never improved, but I was there anyway.
LAMB: How did you get to New York?
Ms. DECTER: I--well, I blackmade--mailed my parents, actually, is what I did. I told them I wanted to study Hebrew and I wanted to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where they had a college of Hebrew studies, and there was no way they could say no to that.
LAMB: You say in your book that your mother and father met through Zion, their--their mutual...
Ms. DECTER: That's right. They were Zionists and I was brought up a Zionist.
LAMB: What does that mean?
Ms. DECTER: That means that we cared about what was then Palestine and the Jewish community there and were hoping that that would be a national home for the Jews. And then came the Holocaust and then that hope turned into something else. It turned into a--a necessity and a demand and a passion.
LAMB: You say that you also went to Dachau in your...
Ms. DECTER: Yes. That was in the late '60s, we went to Germany on a...
LAMB: Why--you and your husband?
Ms. DECTER: Yeah--on a junket, a group of us went, on some kind of junket. And they asked us where we wanted to go, and I sa--I wrote down `a concentration camp.' And I t--I heard later that the--our German hosts were very flustered by this request. They were not happy with it and--but they took us to Dachau, which was basically the most--the most attractive, if you want to put it that way, that was all cleaned up and--and so on. But it was just as revealing as if--in its own way as if we had gone to Auschwitz, which was much bigger and much worse.
LAMB: Revealing in what way?
Ms. DECTER: Well, it was those ovens that got me. They weren't much used in Dachau. They were used only a little bit. But I had--I had this vision of--of a kind of great holocaust, some great fiery thing that the Jews were thrown into. These were ovens like the size of a baker's oven, with a kind of shelf on which two people took a body, opened the door and pushed one body in. So it was very personal. It wasn't some big mass anything. Each one of those bodies was thrown into that oven by two people. That made it a very different image in my mind.
LAMB: Did it change the nature of your trip then, once that visit was over?
Ms. DECTER: Well, no, it didn't, really. It confirmed all my feelings and my passions, but it didn't really, because the Germans were just as nice as they could be. And there's a very funny story. We were being entertained in some very grand home in Dusseldorf, and the--our host had an enormous, wonderful art collection, and the hostess said, `We were not hit at all during the war. None of these pictures was injured.' And I said, `Oh, isn't that wonderful?' I heard myself saying, `Oh, that's wonderful.' And then I said, `Girl, you're in some kind of confusion here.'
LAMB: What about World War II and--and its overall impact on you and the country, and what's--what was the last...
Ms. DECTER: Well, World War II was the last really emotionally simple thing. We were in it. It was very big. Everybody was in it, everybody. People worked--they either worked for it or they were in the Army. You know, Tom Brokaw has written these books calling them `the greatest generation.' They were not great. They were just ordinary people whom the government called on and who answered that call. And they hated the Army and they groused and there were jokes about it. It wasn't that they were all saying, `Hooray. Let's go get them,' at all. It's a miserable thing to be a s--an infantrymen in an army, especially in a bloody war like that. But they felt that they were being depended on by their country, and they were. And so they answered the call, grousing all the way, but it didn't matter. And, of course, everybody was working and everybody was involved and...
Ms. DECTER: The Holocaust--did you know about it during World War II, or how much did you know?
Ms. DECTER: Yes, yes, not--I didn't know all of it, but I knew about it. There were books and there were--there were books about what had gone on in Germany, even at the beginning of the war, to the Jews. And then little by little, one--there were people who now say, `We didn't know,' but that's nonsense. Everybody knew, including the US government, by 1943 maybe.
LAMB: So in 1943, you would have been a member of what political party and what would your politics have been?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I was a kid in high school, honestly.
LAMB: Go beyond that, you know, another couple years.
Ms. DECTER: Well, I was a Democrat. Everybody I knew was a Democrat. Every Jew in this country was a Democrat and Roosevelt was our god. He was gonna save us all and he was--it's very hard to--it's hard to describe what--to others who don't--who weren't there to experience it what this meant. And, of course, there were a lot of people in this country who really loathed Roosevelt, but I didn't know any and I didn't meet any until I was very well grown and already had began to have a more complex idea about society than I had had then. But he was...
LAMB: Are you still a registered Democrat?
Ms. DECTER: I am.
LAMB: And you--you at one point in the book talk about why.
Ms. DECTER: Well, being a registered Democrat made me--I mean, I--I--I no longer believe in the Democratic Party at all, but two things. First of all, if you--if you live in New York and there are primary campaigns, you're practically disenfranchised if you're not a Democrat. You don't get to--your vote doesn't carry any weight. So that's one thing. That's a m--a less important thing than the fact that all my conservative friends had need of Democrats. I served on a board and two commissions where, of course, you know, in Washington there has to be an array of everybody. And so I was very popular then with my conservative friends as a Democrat. I was useful. So they--they told me, `Don't, don't, don't change your registration,' and I never have.
LAMB: Is that possibly one of those things that makes people cynical about politics, where you're really not a Democrat, but you stay a Democrat and they use you to--in the appointment process?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I don't know. I suppose you could say it's a--I don't know. `Cynical' is too strong a word, I think.
LAMB: ...(Unintelligible).
Ms. DECTER: It's kind of...
LAMB: Wha--what boards and what commissions did you serve on?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I served on the board of radio broadcasting to Cuba. That...
LAMB: Radio Marti?
Ms. DECTER: Yeah, Radio Marti. That was--that was the most important one. And then there was a presidential commission on hunger which was...
LAMB: Which president?
Ms. DECTER: That was Reagan. It was quite early in his administration, but it was really--it was a kind of boondoggle in the sense that there were all sorts of claims that there were starving people all over the United States, the poor were being--you know, their faces were being ground. And so it was decided that there should be--the president should appoint a commission to go around and examine this question. And it was--it was very pleasant and it was nonsense, basically.
LAMB: But in the middle of all this, you not only worked for Commentary, which by the way, for someone who's never read it is--what--what is it about, the magazine?
Ms. DECTER: Commentary is a monthly published--formerly published by the American Jewish Committee and now only partly sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, which is a monthly of general, political, cultural and social interests with some emphasis on those things that are of special interest to Jews.
LAMB: Like what? What's of special interest to Jews?
Ms. DECTER: Well, right now the state of Israel is a very special interest to Jews.
LAMB: You think that will ever work over there?
Ms. DECTER: Well, ever is a very big word, and I have to pray that it will because there are--there's a whole community of people there, and they are America's only reliable allies in that part of the world, although the United States is not--at this point is not behaving as if they are. They are, and they're under terrible pressure to make peace with people who don't want to make peace with them. And my daughter--I have four grandchildren there and I worry about them plenty.
LAMB: What is the draw for a Jew to Israel?
Ms. DECTER: Well, it's--I guess it's different for different Jews, but it is--it's their historic place. It's where Judaism started. It's where they were. They had a kingdom there. Then they got scattered. But every single Saturday morning in synagogue they pray to see the place and to return to the place, and they remember it and--you know, so it never really left Jewish consciousness. The only Jews for whom it didn't matter were those who didn't like being Jews very much.
LAMB: What was the draw for your daughter to live there instead of, say, living in the United States? And you've had more than one daughter live there?
Ms. DECTER: Well, they--no. There were--all three of them went there. One went for a year and another went for two years, but they--they weren't going stay. They came back. But this one went to go to school there.
LAMB: Her name?
Ms. DECTER: Her name is Ruth--or Ruthie, actually. That's what everybody calls her. And what happened: She went to the university and she met a boy.
LAMB: What university?
Ms. DECTER: The Hebrew University at Jerusalem, and she met a boy and she married him and that was that.
LAMB: To this day.
Ms. DECTER: And she is a real citizen of that country.
LAMB: What does it mean to be Jewish?
Ms. DECTER: That is a question in answer to which volumes, libraries, oceans of words have been written.
LAMB: What does it mean to you?
Ms. DECTER: What does it mean to me? It means a connection with this long history. And I do have some religious feelings. I mean, by religious Jews, they wouldn't consider me one, but I do have some feeling about this. And it's a long thing. And then there's this other thing. The--it's an issue of pride after the Holocaust to remain a Jew. They tried to wipe us out. Well, by God, the hell with them. That--that's a very--that's a very big part of this impulse, I think, now. I don't know what will happen to Jews in the future. That won't be part of their--I think--I don't think that will be part of their feeling about this, perhaps. But it's--it's thousands of years. It's not so easy to escape that.
LAMB: You said earlier that you're not so sure about the United States' commitment to Israel.
Ms. DECTER: Well, I mean, of course, the United States has been committed to Israel and has been very important, but at this point, the United States is out to--to make a coalition with the very people whose terrorist forces have been battering Israel since it became a state. There've been five wars and how many Intifadahs? And I went--you know, and I heard that they were going to talk to Syria, which is a great sponsor of terrorism, in order to include Syria in this great coalition. And, of course, now the line is on the part of people who are unfriendly to Israel that it's because of America's commitment to Israel that we're now being terrorized by the terrorists, which is nonsense.
LAMB: What if, for some reason or other, it was proved that that was the reason? And it--and it became that that--whether you liked it or not, that was the issue? How would you solve it then if these folks that live in Syria and Gaza and...
Ms. DECTER: Well, I wouldn't s--the only way I could solve it is so say, this is crazy. You do not temporize with beastly people, because if--if they're not coming after you now, they'll come after you later. That's what I'd say. And there's one corner of Western civilization in that area, and that's Israel, and it is--it's a Western country, and it's a democracy, and we're supposed to be for that.
LAMB: How--but--but again, how would you solve this problem if you--if somebody turned this over to you and said, `Midge Decter, we've got to solve this problem one way or the other or it's gonna be--this never--this stuff is never gonna stop.' What would do you do?
Ms. DECTER: Well, the first thing would I do is take out Saddam Hussein. That's unfinished business that should have happened during the Gulf War.
LAMB: Take him personally out?
Ms. DECTER: Take him and his government personally out.
LAMB: Kill them?
Ms. DECTER: Yes, or imprison--get them out of power. Which would, by now, mean killing them. And their s--their guard and their supporters and so on, get them out of there. It wasn't for Israel that we went to fight that war.
LAMB: What did we do it for?
Ms. DECTER: Well, the ostensible reason was to get them out of Kuwait, but it--that was--that country was a source of terrible anti-Western agitation and--and plotting and building weapons and all that. It was the enemy. We do have enemies, you know, and we went to war against this one and--and stopped.
LAMB: How far would you go? If you're gonna kill innocent civilians in the process, what do you do about that?
Ms. DECTER: We killed a lot of innocent civilians. That's what war does. That's what war does. We killed a lot of innocent Germans and a lot of innocent Japanese, after all. And would have had it come to that, killed a lot of other innocent people, if that war had gone on.
LAMB: What's the second...
Ms. DECTER: It's--war is not--the war ain't beanbag, if I could borrow the phrase--phrase from Mr. Dooley.
LAMB: What is the second thing you would do? Take out Saddam Hussein...
Ms. DECTER: Yes, and I would do what--I would do what Paul Wolfowitz said we have to do. We have to get rid of all those governments that give house room to terrorists.
LAMB: Syria?
Ms. DECTER: Syria--absolutely Syria, and Iran.
LAMB: But if you go into Syria, who do you take out?
Ms. DECTER: You take out the ruling party.
LAMB: The king?
Ms. DECTER: Absolutely.
LAMB: Not the king. I didn't mean the king. You know the--sorry.
Ms. DECTER: Well, there's no king there. I mean--yes. You take out--you take out the ruling party. I mean, you know, it's not pleasant. This stuff is not dancing around the maypole. This is serious business, and you have to do very nasty things. And I say this knowing that as a woman, I would not be on the front lines of this.
LAMB: Who should be on the front lines of it?
Ms. DECTER: Well, the American soldiers.
LAMB: No women?
Ms. DECTER: Oh, no, never. I'm against that.
LAMB: Why?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I'm sure, first of all, that they interfere with the warfare. Second of all, there has to be some difference. Women have the thing they have to do, which is to look after other things. They have to look after children. The worst--the most obscene thi--picture I ever saw on this subject was on the front page of The Yew York Post when--the day there was a big shipment of people to Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield and there was a picture of a woman in full field dress with a helmet and all kissing the head of a baby--must have been--looked about three months old, being held in the arms of its father. Now there's something wrong with a society where the father is holding the baby and the mother is going off to war. I don't--it seems to me self-evident. I don't know why we have to...
LAMB: You know, though, in Israel it could happen.
Ms. DECTER: No. They started--they tried. Girls are drafted in Israel, but they're not--they--to begin with, they were going to be in combat and the men all said, `No, get them out of here because it interferes with our capacity to fight because we're worried about them all the time. And if we hear them screaming or something, we can't go on.' So the girls in the Israeli army do other things. They run the radios and the communications and things like that, which are not combat jobs.
LAMB: So go back to the Israel situation. What would you do about the Arafat-Palestinian situation? What would you do about him?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I mean, they've been--they set him up. The Israelis foolishly set him up as the leader with whom they're going to deal, and he can't--he can't give them peace and he can't make a deal with them and he doesn't want to make deal with them. So what--what--what I would do about him is ignore him and keep my powder dry and wait until maybe someday somebody who really means to make peace would come along.
LAMB: But what is peace, do you think, to a Palestinian?
Ms. DECTER: Well, they by and large depend on Israel for their livelihood at this point. The Palestinians come into Israel and make a living. Peace would be their decision to stop--to--to make a--to reach a real settlement, which they haven't shown the least bit of interest in doing.
LAMB: Do they get their own state?
Ms. DECTER: I guess they'd have to get their own state, but they--they can't have their own state now. This man, Arafat, and his Palestinian Authority are--they're--they're being paid for by America and also by Israel, and the guns that those so-called policemen who are really Arafat's army have, were put in their hands by Israel at a point when they really thought they had a deal, and they don't. So what they have to do is keep their powder dry and combat Palestinian terrorism as best they can. They're not bad at it. For every bombing you hear about, there are probably three or four you--that have been put off.
LAMB: As you know, a number of the terrorists--I don't know what the number was--were Egyptians, and--you know, and this whole Camp David agreement and everything, we give the Egyptians something like $2 billion...
Ms. DECTER: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: ...a year to keep peace with Israel. What do you think of all that?
Ms. DECTER: Well, the Egyptians are--they play a very dirty game. They are the center of anti-Semitic propaganda maybe in the whole world now. And they made a peace agreement and so far they haven't gone to war, though they're now making funny mo--motions in the Sinai. And they did very well making peace with Israel. They got the whole Sinai back and the oil wells and all that. And the government of Egypt is quite weak and being pushed around by these terrorists, and it's a very bad situation. But I think if you--if you started bringing them down in other places, then they would be weakened in Egypt.
LAMB: Go back to the--the--your--your earlier premise. You say that the terrorism that's going on has nothing--does it have nothing to do with Israel?
Ms. DECTER: Well, they practice it against Israel if they could, but they--they hate us. You know, that's something that Americans are very poor at understanding. They really hate us.
LAMB: Hate Jews or hate Americans?
Ms. DECTER: Hate Americans. Hate Westerners.
LAMB: How many? What do you think the percentage of the Arabs in this world hate Americans?
Ms. DECTER: I don't know. Probably fairly high. Devout, devout Muslims. Because look at us. Our women walk around half naked. They work side by side with men. All these things, which are an--an insult to Islamic practice. They don't like our civilization.
LAMB: Are they--are some of our practices an insult to you?
Ms. DECTER: To me?
LAMB: Yeah. Well, you write about your friend Betty Friedan in here and "The Feminine Mystique" and those changes...
Ms. DECTER: Oh, well, that. That's different. Those are different. Those are different. Yes, they are--they are--I just think that that's--Betty Friedan and the women's movement have done very bad things to American women and American men as a consequence.
LAMB: Tell us some of those things.
Ms. DECTER: That's a different issue.
LAMB: Different entirely?
Ms. DECTER: Yes, different entirely. Well, you see, this is a difficult--this modern period is a difficult time for women. It's also a time full of opportunity. And the opportunity was not given them by the women's movement that stormed around. The opportunity was created for women by medical technology, among other things. They are in better health and they stay alive longer and they stay young and strong and they don't--they're not sapped by having a dozen children, and so on. Now--and this has given them new freedom, and freedom brings difficulties and fears, especially if it's entirely unprecedented. And so what you want to do to these women is give them courage, not say to them, `You are oppressed. You've been oppressed for 12,000 years. Men are your oppressors,' whether they're your husbands or your bosses or your teachers or all that. It's all nonsense. That wasn't what it was. And they've--they've made women very unhappy, actually, by doing this.
LAMB: How do you know they're unhappy?
Ms. DECTER: Well, the--there's the evidence of the women in their late 30s and 40s who are now desperately looking for husbands, or unable to find husbands, have discovered--Guess what?--they want to have children. They never knew this before because their heads were so rattled with this stupid propaganda. And it gets very hard to have children when you're that age. And by then, there've been--there's been so much warfare against men that the men are quite skittish. And the relations between the sexes are dreadful, for no reason. And I also felt that, you know, you look around the world, there's so much suffering all over the place, and women suffer and maybe they suffer more than men in Africa and in Muslim countries. And then you look at American women. They're healthy, they're vital, they're employed, they are educated, and for them to claim that they've been oppressed is just--it's immoral.
LAMB: You don't think men have oppressed women in any way?
Ms. DECTER: No. Nature oppressed them insofar as they were oppressed, though I wouldn't use that word. I mean, that's crazy. It was the nature of things that prevented them from doing a lot of things that they now do.
LAMB: When you look back at your own career, you had Commentary, you had Harper's. For how long--how long were you are Harper's?
Ms. DECTER: About five years.
LAMB: What else did you do in the professional world?
Ms. DECTER: Well, very brief time I was at the Saturday Review. That was--that was--that was not...
LAMB: Norman Cousins.
Ms. DECTER: Yes. And I like him. He's a very nice man and we got along, but we couldn't work together. We're just too far apart on everything. And I was supposed to be his managing editor, you know. So it didn't work.
LAMB: He is very liberal and the news team.
Ms. DECTER: Yes, yes, he is. And he was--was a big environmentalist and I thought it was a lot of nonsense, and so we just didn't see eye to eye. It was a silly thing for me to do to take that job and it was silly for him to hire me and we both understood that quickly, so we parted amicably. And then I went to work as a book publisher.
LAMB: Where?
Ms. DECTER: At Basic Books.
LAMB: How'd you get along there?
Ms. DECTER: Oh, I got along fine. I mean--except that I--you know, I made myself an apprentice in--in middle age. I was suddenly an apprentice again. So I had to start all over again like a big dumb beginner, which I found kind of uncomfortable. But then after a while, I caught on and it was OK, except by then, as I write in this book, I was such a passionate ideologue that I was no good for book publishing after a while either because book publishers are supposed to be entirely neutral politically. They're supposed to publish whatever they think will sell. It's a business, and so I got myself out of that.
LAMB: How--this is your fourth book, fifth book?
Ms. DECTER: This is my fourth book.
LAMB: Fourth book. ReganBooks, HarperCollins.
Ms. DECTER: Yes.
LAMB: How did you--how is it that Judith Regan published this book? What led to this?
Ms. DECTER: You'd have to ask her. I wrote it. I gave it to my agent. My agent showed it around.
LAMB: What did you--what did you want to say in this--I mean...
Ms. DECTER: Judith Regan bought it.
LAMB: ...what was the purpose of the book? What was your challenge here?
Ms. DECTER: Well, the purpose of the book was to say that I think having lived through all these various periods, I learned something about being a woman and about being a mother, although it took me a long time, and about being an American. And so I thought, well, you know, I'm--I'm getting old and I've gone through all these various stages. The one that's the most distorted in people's memories is the '50s. And I thought I would do--try to do a little justice to the '50s, which was a much-insulted decade, even by the people who lived through the '50s themselves. And everybody--the--the--the betting line on the '50s is that it was a big materialistic--when I think about--when I think about us post-war. We were the post-war grownups and we berated ourselves for being materialistic. And when I think about the people who are in their 30s now, I have to laugh. I mean, so we were buying washing machines with our big materialism and houses and sort of making a life. But--so it was--it was much denigrated era. And I thought I'd say, you know, we were people and we were doing this and we were doing that, but we were leading our lives and we weren't oppressed and--nor were we conformists. We were just trying to get along after a big war.
LAMB: Back around to today and what we've been talking about throughout the program. Again, the current state of the United States and the Israeli situation. How you gonna solve this problem? I don't mean you personally, but how are we as a country gonna solve the Israeli problem. Or can we? What impact should we--what--what should we do to make it happen?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I think when--when George Bush--George W. Bush became president and announced that seeing what Clin--seeing what Clinton's activism--he was not going to be a activist with Is--he was just going to let the situation go in Israel. We all said, `Hooray,' because American interference, political interference and foreign policy interference has not been helpful. Not a bit. And, look, the peacemaking that Clinton was involved in resulted in Israelis offering the Palestinians everything, everything; more than they can possibly afford to do from--from the point of view of their security, and he turned it down. That should have been message enough to leave it alone. But instead now Bush is getting interested in Israel, too. And that's very--that's very bad.
LAMB: Do you think they think that that's part of what's going on in the world with the terrorists and all?
Ms. DECTER: I think that Colin Powell, who believes in making this coalition, very important to have this coalition, which thwarted us in the Gulf War and will thwart us again, but he believes in it and he's convinced Bush of it, I guess. And they think that Israel is an impediment to the coalition, but the--the coalition is crazy in the first place.
LAMB: Can we do it by ourself?
Ms. DECTER: We can certainly do it with NATO, and NATO is on board. I don't know what we need those guys for.
LAMB: What if you bomb and take out whatever you have to take out in the situation and you've made all the Arab countries mad?
Ms. DECTER: The Saudis weren't mad when we went to war against Saddam Hussein. It's--it's--it's childish to think that. They're not--they have business among themselves and they're not all friends. They're not--there isn't some big political unity called Islam. And Arabs are not even the majority of Muslims in the world, you know. And we're big and they depend on us. And we can say, `Cut it out,' but we never do. Excuse me.
LAMB: At the end of your book on the last page on a postscript you say, `I am certain that part of our deep discomfort in this comfortable of all possible worlds has to do with our having fallen into a potentially very dangerous combination of arrogance and deep bewilderment.' What do you mean?
Ms. DECTER: Well, I think we're living as people have never lived before. Never. Excuse me. And we don't know our way. We don't know how to do this. We don't know how to live into our 90s. We don't know how to live without physical suffering. We don't know how to accept hardship, and when it comes it feels like an injustice. The things that people lived with always throughout history, we--we find ourselves cut off from the sources of human wisdom and experience because this life is so new and we are bewildered. I think we are.
LAMB: You've been married to Norman Podhoretz now for...
Ms. DECTER: Forty-six years.
LAMB: Has it gotten better with age?
Ms. DECTER: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
LAMB: What about motherhood? Better with age?
Ms. DECTER: Well, my--my daughters have honored me greatly. They really have. They're all mothers and they're wonderful mothers, and I feel honored by that.
LAMB: You say in the book you think you're gonna live to have great-grandchildren.
Ms. DECTER: Well, I think about it, but that's greed.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book, "An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War." Our guest has been Midge Decter. Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.